Why This Latina Created a Photo Project on Mental Illness in Communities of Color

Dior Vargas

Dior Vargas is a suicide attempt survivor living with major depressive disorder. In 2014, the Ecuadorian-Puerto Rican, who was named one of 15 women of color who rocked 2015, started the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project. The series aims to break the silence and stigma of mental illness in communities of color. This is Vargas’ story and why she started the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project, as told to Raquel Reichard.

When I was a kid growing up in Manhattan, I remember thinking only women cried. I had never seen a man shed tears before, so, to me, that meant that they were somehow biologically unable to weep. Later in life, when I saw my father crying one evening, I thought he was the first man in history to ever produce tear drops. That's silly, I know, but it does explain a larger issue: If you don't see something, you don't know that it exists. It’s in this vein that I created the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project, a photo series that highlights non-white people living with a mental disorder.

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While it seems like there is new medical research or historical biographies that highlight mental illness popping up every day, it remains rare to find a person of color in these studies and narratives. This failure to produce racialized representations creates a façade of mental illness as a white person’s issue, a harmful myth that is often accepted by both whites and non-whites alike. It’s isolating and invalidating, and it makes someone who has already been deemed an anomaly feel as if they don’t exist at all.

I understand this all too well.

As a Latina with a major depressive disorder and a suicide attempt survivor, I always felt alone and misunderstood from both society at large and my Latino family. My mental illness was constantly being questioned. People would try catching me in a lie. They thought I was trying to pull one over on them. It was easier to believe that I was attempting to deceive them than it was for them to believe I had a mental health condition. But this isn’t entirely surprising. We see these assessments every day. Think of the stereotypes about women of color: Latinas give birth to “anchor” babies, African-American women are welfare queens and Asian women are dragon ladies. We are constantly cast as detached women who aim to delude others. Our men are treated similarly. When a white man commits a mass shooting, he is often reimagined as a victim of a mental illness. However, when it's a man of color who commits a vicious crime, he is seen as inherently violent. His mental health is rarely brought into question because he, too, is recognized as an emotionless savage. In fact, many of the Latinos locked away in the criminal and juvenile justice system have been misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all for a mental disorder.

People of color are not trusted when we say we are mentally ill because we are not seen as fully human. Our humanity has been robbed.